In this review of Tom Nolan’s biography of Ross Macdonald -
- which really isn’t a review of the biography at all but, rather, a short complaining session in which the reviewer gets to express his dislike of Macdonald’s novels – Terry Teachout does make one crucial point. He notes that Macdonald relies heavily on “overcooked similes”. I object to “overcooked”, but it is true that similes are Macdonald’s bread and butter in terms of style and also that, in some of the novels, what seems like a constant use of them can tend to be distracting.
This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
The Drowning Pool is the second of the eighteen Archer novels; in it, Macdonald still hasn’t found the rock solid formulas that appear to first surface with The Galton Case and continue on up to The Blue Hammer. In the earlier Archer books he’s still dabbling a little too much in the Hammet,
Chandler, hardboiled school. The
Drowing Pool has more than a fair share of a lot of gimmicky shtick. Before I discuss it in a little detail I
would like to list and quote the first ten similes similes I uncovered in the
first sixty two pages of the book, doing so for perspective’s sake.
1. She turned to me like a musician from his piano. (p. 13)
2. …and circled the mugging pair like a referee. (p. 18)
3. A chandelier of yellowing crystal hung down from the central beam like a misshapen stalactite. (p. 32)
4. A trace of hysteria came into her voice like a thin entering wedge. (p. 33)
5. …her breasts pressed together like clenched fists in the V of her neckline. (p.39)
6. She looked around blindly and gaily like a bird… (p. 50)
7. Meditatively, she fingered herself, like a butcher testing meat which had hung too long. (p. 51)
8. The trickle of melody gradually filled the room like clear water… (p. 52)
9. …the girls with oil or gold or free-flowing real-estate money in their blood like blueing. (p. 54)
10. He smiled bleakly, as a monk might smile over the memory of an ecstasy. (p. 60)
With that out of the way, we might move on to some of the things that
constitute the guts of the novel – indeed, some of these are part of the guts that make up all of Macdonald’s work. One, the mixing and fusing together of the past and present,
comes up in the very first paragraph of The Drowning Pool as Archer contemplates Maude Slocum. Speaking of her eyes he observes “They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had.” A short time later, of Maude again: “But her eyes looked past me, and far beyond the room.” Again, in the same scene: “Some guilt or fear was drawing her backward steadily, so that she had to enthuse and emote and be admired in order to stay in the same place.”
A different kind of example of how some consistent themes flow through Macdonald’s novels might be gotten from a brief comparison between passages from The Moving Target, the first Archer novel, and The Drowning Pool. These clips all seem to have come out of the same notebook, which is a fairly common occurrence in the early novels of highly talented novelists. In The Moving Target Archer observes of Miranda “Her light-brown coat fell open in front, and her small sweatered breasts, pointed like weapons, were half impatient promise, half gradual threat. “ In The Drowning Pool he says of Maude Slocum “Her whole body heaved in the zebra-striped dress, and her breasts pressed together like round clenched fists in the V of her neckline.” In both novels there are extended passages in which Archer observes himself in a mirror – in the earlier book this happens in Ralph Sampson’s astrology room, in the latter in Gretchen Keck’s trailer. And in both novels the deep, rich tans of both Maude Slocum and Mrs. Sampson are noticed by Archer with great care.
As Peter Wolfe points out in his excellent, excellent study on Macdonald entitled Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, in the fully mature Archer novels one person does all the murderous damage, commits all the killings; here, in The Drowning Pool, blame is all over the place. Cathy kills her grandmother; the lynching party does in Pat Reavis; Mavis kills her husband; Maude Slocum takes her own life. The kind of sin, or evil,that functions at a metaphysical, baseline level in the later work hasn’t completely been worked out by Macdonald yet, here. He’s still reaching for gangsters, thugs, corrupt businessmen, and the like to pin at least some of the wrongdoing on.
We could plausibly apply the title The Drowning Pool to three things in the story. Two are quite literal – the pool at the Slocum house in which Olivia drowns and the hydro-torture room, Melliotes’ death chamber, at the Angel Of Mercy home (this latter supplies the opportunity for the most cartoonish, superhero like moment for Archer in the book). The third is actually called the drowning pool, a symbolic name given to the hectic frenzied relations between the sexes:
“Her mouth was dark and glistening. I kissed her, felt her toe press on my instep, her hand move on my body. I drew back from the whirling vortex that had opened, thedrowning pool. She wriggled and sighed, and went to sleep in my arms.”
Years ago on the back covers of some editions of the Lew Archer paperbacks the following quote from Robert B. Parker used to appear regularly:
“It was not just that Ross Macdonald taught us how to write;
he did something much more, he taught us how to read, and how to think
about life, and maybe, in some small but mattering way, how to live…”
I used to mull this over and think, “How to live? That seems a little over the top.” However now, in combing through a lot of the Archer novels with some care, I think I know what Parker was getting at. It has to do with Macdonald’s sheer powers of observation in respect to people and their lives – but more so in respect to his secondary characters rather than his main ones. His psychological observations, his methods of presentation, his ability to portray – these are all jaw dropping. I think, indeed, that if one could train oneself to observe people in the real world the way Macdonald appears to have been able to do that that would most certainly be a lesson in how to live. It’s very similar to having caught, in a flickering second, a Picasso-like mask on a person’s face and thus “getting” Picasso for real, understanding that you are being taught a different way of seeing by this man.
Here I’m going to restrict myself to commenting on just two examples from the novel and an interesting hook that Macdonald used to connect them.
In Chapter 2 Archer drives to Quinto, after being hired by Maude Slocum, and takes a room at the Motel del Mar where he meets the innkeeper and his wife. The wife, who remains unnamed, is a fussbucket who talks up the town, the motel, and how she and her husband, Henry, “make quite a game out of it”. While she talks to Archer her husband, Henry, mainly grunts. As Archer is leaving Henry runs out of the motel office, having mistaken Archer’s comments that he would like to settle in Quinto for real. He mentions to Archer that he would like to sell the motel due to the fact that he has a chance to acquire a liquor license in Nopal, where there’s money to be made.
Later, after Archer picks up Pat Reavis, they sit in a bar in Nopal owned by Antonio, an immigrant who tells Archer he’s been doing so well with his bar he’ll be able to retire in five years. “I don’t have trouble with anybody” Antonio says, and Archer thinks:
I could see why in his face. He had the authority of a man who had seen
everything and not been changed by it.
This two sides of the same coin strategy is absolutely brilliant. We know that Antonio is the kind of person who can succeed with a bar in Nopal, and we know that the innkeeper Henry is the kind of person who, even if he succeeds in selling the motel and getting the license, will fail at the same enterprise. And Macdonald gets this across not by telling us but by showing us. In book after book in the Archer novels the minor characters’ lives and personalities are elucidated in this almost breathtakingly impressive way.
Before leaving The Drowning Pool to consider, next, what has to be by any standard one of the very best from the Archer series, Black Money, I’d simply like to bring attention to Macdonald’s capacity to notice details by way of a couple of examples. (The examples of this we could cull from the book probably number in the hundreds. Practicality dictates restriction.)Speaking of Knudson, he writes “His thick, square nailed fingers drummed on the table top.” Speaking from my own reading experience, I would venture one could read a hundred novels in a row and not see a description of the shape of someone’s fingernails. Later, at the jazz club called the Romp Room, “The drummer hit everything he had, drums, traps, cymbals, stamped on the floor, beat the rungs of his chair, banged the chrome rod that supported the microphone.” This kind of attunement to the creation of sound could only come from someone who has spent time in jazz joints and listening to a lot of records – it connects the reader to the life of the author directly